It’s not hard to figure out why Snow White and the Huntsman — released on DVD and Blu-ray today — disappointed at the box office earlier this year: It’s a disappointing movie, because it could have been so much more. Whatever it was, it was not the feminist reimagining of the fairy tale that the studio marketing promised.
You should realize your grrrl power movie is in trouble when the biggest change to the well-trod Brothers Grimm story is elevating the male huntsman from a bit player to a leading role. Snow White’s importance still stems from her beauty more than her ability to lug around a sword and her handy knowledge of the castle sewer system. True, she is not as passive as character in the Disney version (no housework for this riot grrrl!), but she still needs rescuing by a strong man — and she’s not exactly a compelling, sympathetic heroine one can easily root for, preferring a sneer to a smile.
Once upon a time, Snow White was born not only the daughter of the king, but the most beautiful girl in the land. After her mother passes away, her father falls under the thrall of Ravenna (Charlize Theron; Prometheus), who remains forever young and beautiful by sucking the life force out of young and beautiful girls, which naturally puts Snow on her radar. The evil queen locks Snow in a tower until she grows into Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga), ripe for life-sucking. But the girl escapes, and Ravenna sends a half-drunk huntsman (Chris Hemsworth; The Avengers‘ Thor) to bring her back so the queen can eat the teen’s heart and be the fairest in the land again.
The huntsman kind of, sort of falls for her in a chaste, strictly PG-13 sort of way, and helps her journey across a land filled with monsters, fairies and, yes, seven dwarves, here reimagined as mostly-surly unemployed gold miners who might have escaped from Time Bandits. (They are played by British character actors Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Brian Gleeson and Nick Frost; none of whom are little people.) Snow wants to hook up with old childhood pal Prince William (Sam Claflin) and his rebels to retake the kingdom — but first she has to deal with that a nasty poisoned apple and the sleeping curse, etc.
It is well-known by now that Stewart had an affair with rookie director Rupert Sanders during production, so it’s surprising that he did not insist that cinematographer Greig Fraser light his leading lady better — he sacrificed flattering his fling for the integrity of the muted visuals. As it is, Stewart’s alabaster skin fairly glows in contrast to the flat earth tones of the muddy kingdom and gray stone of the castle.
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and I personally think Stewart is very pretty, but she really is in no danger of eclipsing the luminous Theron. Part of me enjoyed the way Theron sank her teeth into the broadness of her role, but part of me cringed at her mad rages. She seemed to be the only person really acting in this movie. As usual, Stewart downplays her beauty (even though her character’s looks are the point!) but doesn’t bother to make Snow charismatic. Stewart’s finest moment comes when she delivers Snow’s big speech to rally the troops; sadly, it leaves the viewer wondering where the hell that bit of fiery leadership came from! Hemsworth does his stolid best, but the role is underwritten, with angst over his tragic past standing in for a personality.
There is no disputing, however, the beauty of the film itself onscreen. This movie is art-directed to within an inch of its life — but in this case it’s a good thing. Everything from the costumes to the weapons and props, the armor and the sets all worked seamlessly together. The film really does look great; the big swamp sequence almost makes the audience feel the damp and mud, and the… well, fairy land was quite a magical place.
The special effects are pretty much flawless, especially the melting liquid-metal effect of the magic mirror; the tainted apple; and the queen’s transformations. The swamp monster Snow and the huntsman battle looks quite scary and very solid. I expect Oscar nominations here. It’s a shame the VFX were not done in service of a better, more entertaining film. This is a movie that’s definitely worth watching, in the sense that the visuals themselves are arresting and fun.
Which is good, because the rest of the film simply is not. The narrative pace is nonexistent. There’s a big castle siege at the end, but the editing is sloppy and a lot of the action takes place in the background. And none of it matters, since the final confrontation must be between Snow and Ravenna.